Complementing Wrekin Model Flying Club’s annual summer International Model Air Show, a brand new event dubbed “Weston Park In The Dark” was hosted on the evening of Saturday, 18 October. Karl Drage was there for GAR.
Remote-controlled models appearing at airshows is nothing new. In fact, more and more events have been using them in recent years, and there have even been a few occasions where remote-controlled and full-sized, manned aeroplanes have displayed together. At those shows, however, the smaller examples have always played second fiddle to the real thing. Weston Park In The Dark was, for me, the first time the shoe had been on the other foot, as it were. Not only that, it was the first occasion such a show had taken place at night, certainly in Britain and possibly in Europe.
Held at the picturesque Weston Park, just a stone’s throw from the M54 and accessible from the same junction as the RAF Museum at Cosford, the venue offered a single, rather short, grass runway for operations, which did include one full-sized flying act in the shape of Guy Westgate’s gliderFX.
Gates opened around noon, and the afternoon programme saw a number of pilots of remote-controlled aircraft performing to the, what was then, rather small crowd.
I’ll be honest, when I was asked if I fancied going along, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I was told I would probably be pleasantly surprised. We would soon find out how accurate that prediction was.
As darkness started to fall, proceedings proper were commenced by the aforementioned gliderFX team – Guy Westgate in the MDM-1 Fox glider, towed into the air by Ian Gallacher in the team’s Piper PA-25 Pawnee. It was the first time I’d seen Guy perform his sunset pyro display (NB it wasn’t actually as dark as it appears in the pictures!), and it was also the first time he’d flown with a brand new pyrotechnic setup. Unfortunately things didn’t quite go to plan with that and not all of the fireworks ignited.
Even running at half power, it was still a great way to get the evening going, and the now-considerably-larger crowd (said to be 4,000 people in the local press after the event) loved it.
How do you follow that up? With a fire performer, obviously! I thought he was excellent, but the crowd seemed to take a little time to warm to him.
The model flying was split into two segments and featured some of Europe’s best known pilots as well as some very inexperienced guys; I believe there was even a 10-year old in amongst them. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to fly a remote-controlled aeroplane in daylight, let alone at night, so it didn’t come as a huge surprise that there were a few accidents during the course of the evening – the majority of them quite minor, though one did seem to come down rather more vertically than the rest. I hope it wasn’t too expensive!
Fireworks featured heavily in many displays, both with ground-launched pyrotechnics and many even strapped to the aircraft themselves. Much of it was genuinely spectacular, and the accompanying music and commentary kept the crowd engaged even when the flying wasn’t quite so enthralling. You certainly didn’t need to be of an aviation persuasion to enjoy what was on offer.
Aside from the wind, which made the temperature feel rather cooler than would otherwise have been the case, conditions were, according to the commentator, “perfect” for RC flying, with unrestricted visibility, no cloud base and no weather.
This wasn’t the first time I’d photographed remote-controlled aircraft up close this year. Back in August, Gareth and I had met world aerobatic champion Ali Machinchy at Bidford-on-Avon Gliding Club. I’ll be honest, while the routines flown are spectacular – and in many cases utterly jaw-dropping – they are a long way removed from the aviation that has kept me captivated for over 30 years.
The helicopter models, in particular, can do things that would be physically impossible in a manned machine, and it wouldn’t be advisable to hang on your prop at three feet above the ground in your Sukhoi Su-26 or Extra 300 either, as many of the highly-accomplished RC pilots do.
Despite this ‘real-world disconnect’ that exists, I still feel strangely drawn to this smaller-scaled take on aviation. The appeal for me, however, is much more about the photographic challenges it poses rather than with the aircraft themselves.
To that end, I guess Weston Park In The Dark ratcheted the ‘difficulty bar’ up a notch or two. As anyone who has attempted to follow a remote-controlled aircraft across the sky through a 400mm lens will attest, keeping it in the viewfinder is no mean feat (in many regards it’s much more difficult than with a real aircraft), so throw in the added complication of it being dark, and it really did become very tricky. The results, however, I think are pretty special.
Undoubtedly the easiest aircraft to photograph were the Sukhoi Su-26MMs which carried small lights on the wing-tips and tail-planes to illuminate much of the body of the aeroplane.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were the helicopters that would literally dance around, with fireworks popping left, right and centre. With the desire to capture full rotor-discs (largely due to the fact that there were tiny lights mounted on the ends of the rotor-tips), it was virtually impossible to get a sharp shot of the helicopters too, such was the speed of their movement.
One exception to that was an amazing model which was capable of projecting images on to its rotors. I’ve no idea how it was done, but it was superb and was flown far less aggressively than all of the other helicopters that performed. For the photographers among you, it took an exposure of somewhere between 1/25th and 1/30th of a second to capture a full disc with this machine.
Following the interval, some of the acts flew again, and it was after three of these – making it a little after 2100 – that we decided we’d reluctantly sacrifice the fireworks finale and set off on the 90-minute journey home.
At £8 per person (under-16s go free) or £15 for a family ticket, Weston Park In The Dark represented superb value for money. Whilst it was aimed primarily at the RC community, its great strength was that it entertained almost anybody, transcending aviation boundaries and genuinely appealing to the masses. It was a full-on fireworks display but better. Hold it a couple of weeks later in 2015, market it to a wider audience, and it could be huge!
Congratulations to Wrekin Model Flying Club for pushing the boundaries and trying something different!